Revisit socially charged romance 'Wild River'

March 05, 2010|By Michael Sragow | michael.sragow@baltsun.com | Sun Movie Critic

If you want to fall hard for a movie, and a movie star, this weekend, check out the ravishing new print of Elia Kazan's romance-cum-social drama, "Wild River" (1960), set in Depression-era Tennessee. Lee Remick had an undercelebrated run in gnarly pictures, from her debut as a drop-dead-gorgeous majorette in Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd" (1957) to her weathered turn as an ex-con's wife in Robert Mulligan's "Baby the Rain Must Fall" (1965).

She's an unself-conscious dazzler in "Wild River," which she called her favorite movie. (It was one of Kazan's, too.) She almost does for Montgomery Clift what Elizabeth Taylor did for him nine years earlier, in "A Place in the Sun" (1951). As the young, widowed granddaughter of a stubborn, rural Tennessee matriarch ( Jo Van Fleet), Remick nearly gets us to see him through her smitten character's eyes: as an oddly compelling, sensitive stranger with an enigmatic, hard-to-resist allure.

In "Wild River," Clift pulls off the public aspect of his role as a Northern field administrator for the Tennessee Valley Authority. He must force the grandmother from her native ground for the federal agency that hopes to dam the Tennessee River and harness its energy for electricity. He ultimately manages the trick of being sympathetic and unsentimental, to the old island woman and to the audience. Clift has a priceless comic moment when he tells the matriarch he understands her need for "dignity," before he drunkenly stumbles and rolls to a standstill.

Sensual, he's not - at least not in "Wild River." Between 1951 and 1960, Clift had survived a terrible car crash. His looks lost their dash, and, more important, their youthful emotional transparency. But Remick is so expressive, she does the primal bonding for both of them.

During one of those romantic-testing scenes that became a Kazan specialty (think of Eva Marie Saint and Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront"), she turns her character's confession of unhappiness into a long day's journey into twilight, catching Clift up in her complicated yearnings. Remick conjures a melancholy that's thick with memory and longing, then streaks it with passion; Kazan and his cinematographer, Ellsworth Fredericks, capture the fading sunlight in her reddish-blond hair. This is one time in movies that when a man asks a widow if she'd loved her husband, you believe she did in every way.

John Updike once told an interviewer that his work says, "Yes, but." Yes, in 'Rabbit, Run,' to our urgent inner whispers, but - the social fabric collapses murderously. Yes, in 'The Centaur,' to self-sacrifice and duty, but - what of a man's private agony and dwindling?"

"Wild River" voices Updike's "Yes, but" on a grand CinemaScope scale. Yes, the TVA will develop the country and prevent ruinous floods. But it will also trample on the heritage of rugged individualists like Van Fleet's shrewd, recalcitrant hold-out. And yes, Van Fleet's figure is gutsy and heartbreaking. But she is also terribly paternalistic to the black people who work her land while her sons loaf and fish.

Kazan's refinement of the social and personal drama never stops in this movie. When you see "Wild River," you might just say, "Yes, yes."

If you go
"Wild River" plays at noon Saturday, 7 p.m. Monday and 9 p.m. Wednesday at the Charles Theatre, 1711 N. Charles St. Tickets are $6. Call 410-727-FILM or go to thecharles.com

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